Continued war drums in the South China Sea despite ASEAN regional cooperation

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Southeast Asia is increasingly emerging as a new model for economic and political cooperation as practices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have encouraged regional ties to grow with respect to Southeast Asian customs. Comprised of the nations of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, ASEAN has a significant presence in influencing international perceptions on the region’s economy, politics, diplomacy and security. To this end, they have received criticism on their record of human rights, especially in recent months due to their agreement to meet with the new Myanmar junta leader (Reuters). For the most part though, ASEAN has been able to keep with their goal of opening communication between countries. The Myanmar situation is a lose-lose; when ASEAN does meet with the junta, Western institutions and think tanks like the United Nations and Council on Foreign Relations accuse them of “lending legitimacy” to an already established military presence. If they had refused to meet with the junta, they would have been “blocking lines of communication” and access to compromises.  

Western interests in the Southeast Asian region play out well beyond the UN and pro-democracy think-tanks. In recent years, they have come to take the form of mega-corporations who exploit cheap labor while simultaneously attempting to penetrate the growing markets made up of the rising middle class. The delicate balance of power held in the South China Sea between the ASEAN nations, China and Taiwan has been disrupted by corporate strategy making and propaganda war between the U.S and China. H&M was one such corporation that was denounced by Vietnamese citizens due to their revised map of the region which gave China more territorial claim of the South China Sea (Huang). This was obviously a very well-calculated move on the part of the Swedish corporation, as they operate 250 physical stores in China, compared to a mere 11 stores in Vietnam.  

The significance of the region cannot be overstated, and if there is to be a longer-lasting compromise, it should come about through ASEAN cooperation and not be dictated singularly by a Chinese or American vision. Along with the presence of Western corporations in the area, the United States has a particular interest in the area as it is the perfect battlefield for another satellite war. The vast military presence of China in the South China Sea has been a cause of concern for nations such as Taiwan, who are struggling just to be recognized internationally. For this reason, the United States has allied itself with Taiwan, stating it will protect the island’s self-governance (Al-Jazeera). All would be fine and well if the U.S didn’t have such an extensive track record of war-mongering and inciting chaos in nearly every continent on Earth. It is worth worrying about Chinese military presence (in the sphere of their influence and area of trade) in the South China Sea, but it is much more worrying to consider the implications of American involvement in the region instead of an ASEAN-mediated cooperation. The U.S has had its eyes set on a war with China ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the replacement of one cold war with the other.  

This new cold war, also motivated in part by new “hybrid war” technologies, has been waged by the U.S in the domain of economic sanctions, diplomatic warfare and strife, legal lawsuits against Chinese companies, military brinkmanship, information and civil subversion and academic warfare (Noh). Before the invasion of Iraq, a similar misinformation campaign was circulated by the Bush administration leading to the continued military failures of the U.S in the Middle East region. Southeast Asia could once again become a playground for American interests, except this time it may not be in the form of extensive American troops on the ground as seen during the Vietnam War. Much of the South China Sea conflict will be an escalation of the already existing hybrid warfare techniques with a focus on crushing China’s trade and economy. The American cold war on China will hurt the other countries in the region, who are seen as nothing but pawns in the long-term goal of “winning” against China’s growing economy. ASEAN, on the other hand, has in its best interests to continue normalcy in diplomatic relations and trade, since they will more heavily face the brunt of military or economic disruption in the region than the U.S would. Just this week, a longstanding issue between Brunei and Malaysia was resolved through ASEAN dialogue and agreement on the shared use of oil fields and maritime security. This shows the effectiveness of the region to solve their own problems since stability is a shared interest (Goh). The dispute in the South China Sea will only be resolved if China, Taiwan and ASEAN countries can come to a shared compromise based on the thousands of years of trade that has taken place on this maritime Silk Road which goes beyond contemporary nation-state politics and international geo-political interests. 

Works Cited 

Huang, Kristin. “H&M upsets Vietnam after kowtowing to Beijing over ‘problematic map’”, 

South China Morning Post. 3 April 2021.  

Goh, Norman. “Is Southeast Asia waking up to the need for unity in South China Sea?” 

South China Morning Post, 19 April 2021. 

“Myanmar junta chief to attend ASEAN summit in first foreign trip since coup”, Reuters, 17 

April 2021. 

Noh, Kj. “The U.S. is Set on a Path to War with China. What Is to be Done?”, QIAO  

Collective, 8 Feb 2021.  

“Taiwan says China’s activities threaten regional stability”, Al-Jazeera, 15 April 2021. 

Further Reading 

Hale, Erin. “Is China really about to invade Taiwan?”, Al-Jazeera, 14 April 2021.